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Is Dallas Keuchel back to Cy Young form?

2017 Dallas Keuchel has looked a lot like 2015 Dallas Keuchel so far. Is he back to his old form or is this just a hot streak?

MLB: Houston Astros at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If you are a very loyal reader and very obsessed fantasy baseball fan, you might have read a 2017 player preview I wrote in the midst of the MLB playoffs and the NFL regular season. Since unicorns are laughing at how rare that reader is, I’m going to assume you didn’t read my October 17 piece on Dallas Keuchel.

Here’s the gist:

Keuchel’s bad 2016 was the result of: a drop in velocity on all pitches, more pitches in the zone, fewer changeups, bad luck with stranded baserunners, fewer whiffs, and less movement on his pitches. Those last two are almost certainly related to a drop in velocity. Perhaps all of it can be blamed on that.

The formula for success for Keuchel in 2017: throw more changeups, get your average fastball velocity in the 89+ mph range, throw in the zone less, and expect positive regression in LOB%.

Don’t tell me I never did anything nice for you. I just saved you reading 1000 words. The parts in bold are, obviously, the points I want to emphasize. So, it’s 2017 and Keuchel has put up this pitching line so far:

1.81/3.11/2.78 ERA/FIP/xFIP, 23.9% K%, 6.2% BB%, 10.8% SwStr%, 67.6% GB%, 21.1 Hard%

Compare that to the same stats in his 2015 Cy Young award season:

2.48/2.911/2.75 ERA/FIP/xFIP, 23.7% K%, 5.6% BB%, 10.3% SwStr%, 61.7% GB%, 21.3 Hard%

I barely had to change any of the numbers! He’s clearly pitching at an elite level once again, but can he keep this up all year like he did in 2015? To find out, I’m going to look at the formula for success I wrote about in the fall and see how he measures up.

Formula for Success, Part 1: Throw More Changeups!

Check! 2016 change-up %: 9.3%, 2017: 13%. I’ll bet you’ll never guess which one he was closer to in 2015. (it was 13.8%)

He’s off to a great start, once again relying on that very good pitch. That’s at least part of the reason righties are only putting up a 0.252 wOBA against him this year, after putting up a 0.331 last year. If OPS is your jam, he went from 0.772 down to 0.568 against RHB.

Formula for Success, Part 2: Fastball Velocity Over 89 mph

Check! Both his sinker and his fourseam averaged over 89 both months this year, according to Brooks Baseball. In April and May of 2016, neither of those two pitches averaged over 89, so he has clearly rebounded and is fully recovered from the shoulder injury that hampered him last season. When your velocity is already sub-90, you need every mph you can get, so this helps.

Formula for Success, Part 3: Throw in the Zone Less

In order to induce weak contact, get tons of grounders, and get whiffs, it is best for Keuchel to stay low, just below the bottom of the strike zone. In 2015, he did this extremely well. It showed up in his Zone% (percent of pitches in the strike zone), which was one of the lowest in baseball at 37.6% (according to Baseball Info Solutions). In 2016, this creeped up to 41.6%, but it’s back down to 36.3% this year. His 2017 number is second lowest in baseball among starters, trailing only Wade Miley.

He’s successfully getting hitters to chase out of the zone or make contact with bad pitches. This one’s another big checkmark.

Formula for Success, Part 4: Expect Positive Regression in LOB%

Hey, guess what? This one’s another check! After stranding a very low 68% of batters in 2016 (and being very unlucky), he has bounced all the way to the other side of the ledger with an 87.7% strand rate in 2017. He went from the 8th lowest rate among all qualified starters to 2nd highest. That’s a huge swing and he’s unlikely to stay that high all season, but he was certainly due some positive regression. This has gone far better than anyone would have predicted. This also explains why his ERA is so much lower than his FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, even though all three of those are excellent.

Let’s wrap this up. Keuchel has checked every box and fixed everything he needed to after a disappointing 2016 season. He has regained pretty much everything from his Cy Young season. I’m not going to predict a Cy Young again in a league with Chris Sale, his own teammate Lance McCullers, and others around. But, he’s certainly still an ace and I would not trade him for anything less than top 10 (maybe top 5?) pitcher value. Tschus!